Physical and Emotional Journeys in Joyce Carol Oates’s and Sherman Alexie’s Short Stories
“Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” by Joyce Carol Oates and “What You Pawn I Will Redeem” by Sherman Alexie are short tales of two different kinds of journeys, one emotional and the other physical. The protagonist of Oates’s story, Connie, is a rebellious fifteen-year-old girl who encounters her worst nightmare (a man who calls himself Arnold Friend) (Oates 1409). He tries to lure Connie out of her house to go for a “ride” with him (1412) and even threatens to hurt her family if she refuses (1417). Jackson Jackson (or Jackson Squared), Alexie’s protagonist, is a homeless, drunk Indian man who lives in Seattle, Washington (Alexie 1433-1436). “What You Pawn I Will Redeem” is a more light-hearted tale of Jackson’s twenty-four-hour quest to earn $999.00 to buy back his grandmother’s stolen regalia from a pawn broker. Despite the glaring differences between these stories, both protagonists, Connie and Jackson, are lonely and exhibit the fatal flaw of failing to recognize consequences.
Even though Connie has friends, she is emotionally lonely and very insecure. She compares herself to others to make herself feel better. The main target of these judgments is Connie’s “plain and chunky and steady” (Oates 1408) older sister, June. Connie feels alienated from her mother who pays more attention to June (1408) even though Connie feels she is better and more deserving because she is prettier than her sister. Connie also turns to music to lift her spirits. While home alone, she turns on the radio to “drown out the quiet” (1411). Connie’s haughtiness because of her good looks and popularity likely makes it difficult to make friends, making her loneliness her own fault.
For the majority of “What You Pawn I Will Redeem,” Jackson is also lonely. While Alexie gives him many companions, most of Jackson’s friends disappear by the end of the story. After getting drunk and falling asleep, Jackson finds out that one woman, Rose of Sharon, “had hitchhiked back to Toppenish and was living with her sister on the reservation” (Alexie 1436). Junior, another companion, hitchhikes to Portland and dies in an alley (1441). A group of Aleut Indians who live on the dock also disappear (1448). Jackson has been married to several different women and fathered several children, none of whom he remembers (1433). His only real friend is a cop named Officer Williams. Williams rescues Jackson from a dangerous situation of his own making (1443), agrees not to admit him to a detox center (1445), and even gives him thirty dollars to put towards his quest (1446). Unlike Connie’s, Jackson’s loneliness seems inherent to his homeless, vagrant nature.
Connie does not assume that there will be any consequences to lying to her parents and going to the restaurant instead of the mall. If she had stayed at the mall and seen a movie like she told her parents she would, the encounter with Arnold Friend may never have happened. Connie also chooses to stay home alone while her parents and sister go out to a barbeque (Oates 1410). This leaves her especially vulnerable when Arnold Friend, a full-grown man posing as a teenager, arrives (1411). Connie does not sense any danger until it is too late. She lies and says her father is coming back for her (1417) but, Arnold Friend knows better than that. In fact, he even threatens to hurt her family if they return home before Connie comes out of the house (1418). If Connie calls the police, Arnold Friend warns that he will barge into the house (1416). Finally, because she can think of no other alternative, Connie steps out of the house and into Arnold Friend’s arms (1420). Because Connie does not foresee consequences, she puts herself in severe danger.
In Alexie’s story, Jackson repeatedly makes poor choices, overcome by his desire for food and liquor. Whenever he earns any money, instead of saving it to put toward buying back the regalia, he immediately gives it away or spends it on himself and others. For example, in a show of good faith, the pawn broker gives Jackson twenty dollars which he takes straight to the 7-Eleven to buy “three bottles of imagination” (Alexie 1436). After winning one hundred dollars in the lottery, Jackson gives twenty to a cashier at a Korean grocery store and blows the rest on drinks for himself and all the patrons at an Indian bar (1440-1441). He even gets so drunk at the bar (another short-sighted decision) that he ends up falling asleep on the train tracks (1443). When Jackson first walks into the pawn shop, he has five dollars. Twenty-four hours later, after earning $156.50, he walks back into the same pawn shop with only five dollars (1448). However, even though Jackson is so wasteful, he is still rewarded with his grandmother’s regalia in the end (1448-1449). While, like Connie, Jackson does not recognize consequences, he is surrounded by people like Officer Williams and the pawn broker who are kind to him.
At the end of “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” Connie chooses to go with Arnold Friend instead of waiting and taking the chance that he could hurt her family. Knowing this and the fact that Oates is a gothic writer who based Arnold Friend on a real serial killer (Schilb, and Clifford 1407), the reader can safely assume that things would end very badly for Connie. In Jackson’s case, the story would be similar, though probably not as violent. While Alexie’s protagonist does get the regalia in the end, it is not because he earns it. It is only out of the kindness of the pawn broker who gives it to him free of charge (Alexie 1448-1449). Jackson does not change his vagrant, drunken ways and would probably lose the regalia again one way or another. Based on the poor choices Connie and Jackson have made in the past and may continue to make, the reader can guess that the future will not bode well for either protagonist.
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